Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Club: Words on the Move by John McWhorter

Since I love learning about the intricacies of language and enjoy reading books, it seems only natural that I would love to read books about language. However, many books about language end up being tedious and boring due to an overabundance of technical terminology, or simply feel like an endless list of word-related facts.

Luckily, neither of these things is true of Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally) by linguist John McWhorter. In this new book, he expertly describes how and why language is constantly changing, and why that's actually a good thing, supported by an arsenal of well-chosen, amusing examples.

Butterflies also always seem to be on the move!
For example, in the first chapter he discusses how words are constantly becoming more personal, in ways that fall into four categories that make up the handy acronym FACE: factuality, acknowledgment, counterexpectation, and easing. While this may initially sound like it would lead to overly technical explanations, McWhorter instead delves into each category by looking at the evolution of individual terms like literally, you know, -ass (as in big-ass) and LOL.

Many of these terms would normally be discounted by English speakers as being unimportant, and perhaps even be considered to have no meaning. However, McWhorter's amusing descriptions show how incredibly meaningful they can be in communication. By the end of the first chapter, my entire perspective on the use of terms like literally had been completely changed. I'm also quite curious to see if I will no longer be annoyed by hearing "improper" use of literally, or whether I'll start using more emoticons now that I've taken more time to consider their usefulness in communication.

Subsequent chapters are equally interesting, such as the second chapter's discussion of how words "ooze" from meaning to meaning based on common implications instead of drifting aimlessly, as we often think. One of my favorite excerpts of the book was the description of how merry, pretzel and bra all evolved from the same source, which seems completely unbelievable.

Other facets of the constantly shifting linguistic landscape covered in the book include the grammaticalization of words (such as how the word like became the suffix -ly), how vowels are on the move just like words, and how new words are created. If you love languages as much as we do here at The Lingua File, then I'm sure you'll find at least one section that captures your attention.

Have you read Words on the Move? If so, let us know what you thought of it in the comments below! If you know of any other great language-related books, feel free to provide your recommendations as well.